square dance



A square dance is a dance for four couples, or eight dancers in total, arranged in a square, with one couple on each side, facing the middle of the square. Square dances contain elements from numerous traditional dances and were first documented in 16th-century England, but they were also quite common in France and throughout Europe. Early square dances, particularly English country dances and French
quadrille The quadrille is a dance that was fashionable in late 18th- and 19th-century Europe and its colonies. The quadrille consists of a chain of four to six ''Country dance, contredanses''. Latterly the quadrille was frequently danced to a medley of ...
s, traveled to North America with the European settlers and developed significantly there. In some countries and regions, through preservation and repetition, square dances have attained the status of a folk dance. Square dancing is strongly associated with the United States, in part due to its association with the romanticized image of the American
cowboy A cowboy is an animal herder who tends cattle on ranches in North America, traditionally on horseback, and often performs a multitude of other ranch-related tasks. The historic American cowboy of the late 19th century arose from the ''vaquero'' ...
in the 20th century, and 31 states have designated it as their official state dance. The main North American types of square dances include
traditional square dance Traditional square dance is a generic American term for any style of American square dance other than modern western square dance, modern Western. The term can mean (1) any of the American regional styles (broadly, Northeastern, Southeastern, and ...
and modern western square dance, which is widely known and danced worldwide. Other main types popular in England, Ireland, and Scotland include Playford dances, regional folk dances, ceili,
Irish set dance Irish set dancing, sometimes called "Irish sets", is a popular form of folk dance, folk dancing in Ireland danced to irish tunes in groups of eight or four dancers. It is also sometime named set dance, but this name refers more often to a kind of da ...
s, and
Scottish country dance Scottish country dance (SCD) is the distinctively Scottish form of country dance, itself a form of social dance Social dances are dances that have a social functions and context. Social dances are intended for participation rather than ...
s. The couples in a square are numbered, although numbering varies among different types. In many of the types, two of the couples are known as ''heads'' and the other two are called ''sides''. In most American forms of square dance, the dancers are prompted or cued through a sequence of steps by a caller to the beat (and, in some traditions, the phrasing) of music. In other variations, dancers have no caller and instead memorize and perform a specific routine and sequence of steps. Square dance music varies widely, with some forms using traditional tunes and others employing more modern types. Dances can be organized by square dance clubs, bands, individuals, or similar organizations. Attire varies by type, with some forms possessing a specific dress code and others having no requirements. The standard square formation can also vary at times to include more or fewer dancers or arrange dancers in a different shape.


Square dances were first documented in 16th-century England although their origins can be traced further back to steps and figures used in traditional folk dances and social dances from many countries. One of the earliest influences was the
Morris dance Morris dancing is a form of English folklore, English folk dance. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers, usually wearing bell pads on their shins. Implements such as sticks, swords and h ...
, an English dance for six men involving a line formation and energetic steps.Shaw, Dorothy, Bob Osgood, and Kenny Reese (2000).
History and Heritage of Modern American Square Dancing
'' www.eaasdc.de. pp. 3-4, 7, 27-28. Retrieved 2020-10-09.
This dance is closely related to another ancestor of square dancing,
English country dance A country dance is any of a very large number of social dances of a type that originated in the British Isles; it is the repeated execution of a predefined sequence of figures, carefully designed to fit a fixed length of music, performed by a g ...
, which included a variety of dances for groups of couples arranged in circles, lines, or squares. In 1651,
John Playford John Playford (1623–1686/7) was a London bookseller, publisher, minor composer, and member of the Stationers Company, Stationers' Company, who published books on music theory, instruction books for several instruments, and Metrical psalter, psal ...
published 105 of these dances in '' The English Dancing Master'', eight of which are square dances exhibiting concepts still in use, such as the head couples performing an action and the side couples repeating it. Three of the dances, such as "Dull Sir John", specifically use the term ''square dance'' in the phrase, "A Square Dance for eight thus". In the early 1800s, English country dances merged with French dances to form the
quadrille The quadrille is a dance that was fashionable in late 18th- and 19th-century Europe and its colonies. The quadrille consists of a chain of four to six ''Country dance, contredanses''. Latterly the quadrille was frequently danced to a medley of ...
, a dance for four couples in a square. These dances further evolved in America, where they arrived with European settlers. After the American Revolution, the quadrille became especially popular. Quadrilles were originally danced from memorized steps and sequences, but as African American slaves played music for the dances, they began calling out the steps. This practice became common by the early 1900s and gave rise to the modern caller. Between 1940 and 1960, modern western square dance evolved from the western style of traditional square dance that had formed in the United States. Traditional western square dancing was promoted beginning in the 1930s by Lloyd Shaw, who solicited definitions from callers across the country in order to preserve that dance form and make it available to other teachers.Friedland, LeeEllen (1998). "Square Dancing". In Cohen, Selma Jeanne (ed). ''International Encyclopedia of Dance'', vol. 5. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 685-89. The
American folk music revival The American folk music revival began during the 1940s and peaked in popularity in the mid-1960s. Its roots went earlier, and performers like Josh White, Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Billie Holiday, Richard Dyer-Benn ...
in New York City in the 1950s was rooted in the resurgent interest in square dancing and folk dancing there in the 1940s, which gave musicians such as
Pete Seeger Peter Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was an American folk singer and social activist. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, Seeger also had a string of hit records during the early 1950s as a member of the Weavers, notably ...
popular exposure.

Main types

Square dances are considered folk dances in many countries and regions, although the term ''square dance'' varies. In the United States the term is used for dances in square formations and also refers to the dance events where square dances are performed. In England, Ireland, and Scotland, the term is used less frequently, and many dance events involve dances in square, circle, and line formations. The term has also become associated with
barn dance A barn dance is any kind of dance Dance is a performing art art form, form consisting of sequences of movement, either improvised or purposefully selected. This movement has aesthetic and often symbolism (arts), symbolic value. Dance can b ...
s, where many different formations of dance are used.

United States and Canada

Traditional square dance

Also called ''old-time square dance'' or ''quadrilles'' by some older New England callers in recognition of the dance it descended from, traditional square dance is not standardized and can be subdivided into three main regional styles: Northeast/
New England New England is a region comprising six states in the Northeastern United States: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts Massachusetts (Massachusett language, Massachusett: ''Muhsachuweesut assachusett writing systems, məhswatʃəwiːsət ...
, Southeast/
Appalachia Appalachia () is a cultural region in the Eastern United States that stretches from the Southern Tier of New York State to northern Alabama (We dare defend our rights) , anthem = " Alabama" , image_map = Alabama in United States.svg ...
n, and Western. The New England and Appalachian styles have been particularly well documented in the early U.S. and have survived to the 21st century. There are several other styles, some of which have survived or been revived while others have not. Where traditional square dance has been revived, it encompasses a wide range of new choreography. Traditional square dance structure varies by region, but it usually consists of a limited number of calls occurring in a set order. Traditional square dance is frequently presented in alternation with
contra dance Contra dance (also contradance, contra-dance and other variant spellings) is a form of folk dancing made up of long lines of couples. It has mixed origins from English country dance A country dance is any of a very large number of social d ...
s, particularly in revival groups, or with some form of freestyle couple dancing at surviving local events.

Modern western square dance

Modern western square dance, which is also called ''western square dance'', ''contemporary western square dance'', or ''modern American square dance'', evolved from the western style of traditional square dance. Since the 1970s, modern western square dance has been promoted and standardized by Callerlab, the International Association of Square Dance Callers.The initial stage reached by all dancers is called Mainstream. This program consists of a core list of about 70 moves which is revised periodically.Callerlab (2020-02-22). "History." ''Basic Dance Program Definitions''. ''Callerlab.org'', http://www.callerlab.org/Dance-Programs p.6. Accessed 2020-10-10.Callerlab (2020-02-22). "History." ''Mainstream Dance Program Definitions''. ''Callerlab.org'', http://www.callerlab.org/Dance-Programs p.5. Accessed 2020-10-10. Modern western square dance is sometimes presented in alternation with round dances. This modern form of square dancing is taught in around 30 countries, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Australia, China, Japan, and Russia. Within Europe, the majority of square dance clubs are in Germany and the United Kingdom. All teach the Callerlab syllabus, but there are slight style and call title variations throughout the world. Because of this standardization, anyone with the proper training can dance modern western square dancing in many countries around the world. Instruction is typically given in the local language, but the calls are always in English, allowing people to dance internationally once they learn the calls.

United Kingdom and Ireland

Playford dances

Also called ''English country dances'', Playford-style dances originated from the dances published in John Playford's book ''The English Dancing Master''. Some of the square dances listed in the book, such as "Newcastle", have survived to the 21st century, and countless new dances have been written in the Playford style. These dances include a range of moves, from smooth, gentle steps to more energetic leaps. They are supported by the
English Folk Dance and Song Society The English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS, or pronounced 'EFF-diss') is an organisation that promotes English folk music and folk dance. EFDSS was formed in 1932 when two organisations merged: the Folk-Song Society and the English Folk Dan ...

Regional folk dances

Many traditional English regional folk dances are square dances that have survived into the 21st century. For instance, in both the Goathland square eight and the Cumberland square eight, which originated from different English villages, dancers perform a series of memorized moves in a square formation. Many of these dances are danced at folk or barn dances, along with other types of square dances including Playford dances; dances derived from the quadrille, such as "La Russe" published by H.D. Willock in the ''Manual of Dancing'' (c.1847); American traditional square dances; and countless new square dances written in the 20th and 21st centuries.


Irish ceili dances cover a wide range of formations, including many square dances. They are often performed at traditional Irish and Scottish social gatherings called ''cèilidhs''. Cèilidhs are also held in England, where the same squares may be done as at folk dances or barn dances but with more stepping, including skip steps, hop steps, polka steps, and rants.

Irish set dance

Irish set dance is a square dance with strong regional associations. The dance involves stepping, often with a flat-foot polka step. Unlike in traditional and modern western square dancing, where couples are designated as ''heads'' or ''sides'', couples in Irish set dances are either ''tops'' or ''sides''.

Scottish country dance

Scottish country dances cover a wide range of formations, including many square dances. These dances, which are standardized by the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, involve specific steps and formations that are performed in different sequences for different dances.

Continental Europe

Many traditions have square dances. They are usually not called; rather, the sequence of figures is fixed and known by the dancers. Examples include the German ''Bekedorfer'', French ''Carré de Campagne'', and ''Mie Katoen'' from the Low Countries. Variations include double squares, with two couples on each side, like the Danish ''Sonderborger Doppelkadril'' or the Dutch ''Vleegerd''. Some are composed of multiple figures, indicating descent from the high-society quadrille.

Numbering of couples

The four couples arranged in a square are called a set, and each couple is numbered. Couple numbering in a square dance set usually begins with the couple nearest the head of the hall (the side of the room containing the musicians and caller, or, in the pre-caller era, the royal presence or other hosts or important guests). This couple is the ''first'' or ''number one'' couple. If most figures are danced around the set, with one or more couples visiting the others in turn, the couples are likewise numbered around the set. In most surviving American square dance traditions, the couples are numbered counterclockwise: the second couple is to the first couple's right, the third couple is across from the first, and the fourth couple is to the left of the first. The first and third are ''head couples'' or ''heads'' (or, in older parlance, the ''first four''); the second and fourth are ''side couples'' or ''sides'' (formerly ''side four'' or ''second four''). If most of the figures are danced between facing couples across the set, as in the 19th century quadrille and dances derived from it, the couple opposite the first is the ''second couple''. The first and second couples constitute the ''head'' or ''top'' couples (or the ''head and foot'' couples); the third and fourth couples are the ''side'' couples. In Irish set dances, the third couple (sometimes termed the ''first side couple'') is to the left of the ''first top couple''. The couples facing the first top and first side are the ''second top couple'' and the ''second side couple'' respectively.

Callers and calls

Square dance movements are known as ''calls'', and some forms of the dance, such as traditional and modern western square dancing, use a caller to direct the dancers through different calls. In some forms of traditional square dancing, the caller may be one of the dancers or musicians, but in modern western square dancing, the caller is on stage giving full attention to directing the dancers. A square dance call may take a very short time or a very long time to execute. Most calls require between 4 and 32 counts, where a count is roughly one step. In traditional square dancing, the timing of a call is dictated by tradition; in some regional styles, particularly that of New England, the dance movements are closely fitted to the
phrases In syntax and grammar, a phrase is a group of words or singular word acting as a grammatical unit. For instance, the English language, English expression "the very happy squirrel" is a noun phrase which contains the adjective phrase "very happy". ...
of the music. In modern western square dancing, many calls have been given formally specified durations, based partly on direct observation of how long it takes an average dancer to execute them. Traditional and modern western square dance differ in the number of calls and their levels of standardization. Traditional square dance uses between ten and thirty calls, depending on the region and the individual caller. Many traditional square dance calls are similar or identical to
contra dance Contra dance (also contradance, contra-dance and other variant spellings) is a form of folk dancing made up of long lines of couples. It has mixed origins from English country dance A country dance is any of a very large number of social d ...
calls, and new dance moves are explained by the caller. In modern western square dance, the participants learn and become proficient in a particular defined set of calls known as a ''program''. The Mainstream program, which is the default level of achievement, consists of close to 70 basic and mainstream calls. Rather than learning a complete routine, modern western square dancers learn basic movements and calls but do not know in what order they will be called. Unlike traditional square dance, two modern western dances are rarely alike. Most modern western square dancers participate only in the programs they have fully learned. Callerlab, the callers' international association, sets all programs and governs the training of callers. Traditional and modern western square dancing have a number of calls in common, but there are usually small differences in the way they are performed. For example, the Allemande Left is traditionally performed by grasping left hands with the other dancer, pulling away from each other slightly, and walking halfway around a central axis then stepping through. In modern western square dance, the grip is modified so that each dancer grips the forearm of the other, and there is no pulling (that is, each dancer supports his or her own weight). These modifications make it easier to enter and exit the movement and thus easier to incorporate it into a long sequence of calls. In many communities, including Scotland and Ireland, and also continental Europe, the dancers know the complete dance and there is no caller.


Square dance music varies widely by type of dance. Traditional square dance is primarily danced to live music. Since the 19th century, much of the square dance repertoire has been derived from
jig The jig ( ga, port, gd, port-cruinn) is a form of lively folk dance in Metre (music)#Compound metre, compound metre, as well as the accompanying dance tune (folk music), tune. It is most associated with Irish music and dance. It first gained ...
s and reels from Scotland and Ireland, sometimes in relatively unaltered form, sometimes as played in the
old-time music Old-time music is a genre of North American folk music. It developed along with various North American folk dances, such as square dance, square dancing, clogging, and buck dance, buck dancing. It is played on acoustic instruments, generally cen ...
tradition or as adapted by other cultures, such as that of Quebec. This sort of music is played on acoustic instruments, such as the
fiddle A fiddle is a Bow (music), bowed String instrument, string musical instrument, most often a violin. It is a colloquial term for the violin, used by players in all genres, including European classical music, classical music. Although in many ...
banjo The banjo is a stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity to form a resonator. The membrane is typically circular, and usually made of plastic, or occasionally animal skin. Early forms of the instrument were fashi ...
guitar The guitar is a fretted musical instrument that typically has six string instrument, strings. It is usually held flat against the player's body and played by strumming or Plucked string instrument, plucking the strings with the dominant hand, w ...
, and
double bass The double bass (), also known simply as the bass () (or #Terminology, by other names), is the largest and lowest-pitched Bow (music), bowed (or plucked) string instrument in the modern orchestra, symphony orchestra (excluding unorthodox addit ...
; certain instruments, including the
piano The piano is a stringed keyboard instrument in which the strings are struck by wooden hammers that are coated with a softer material (modern hammers are covered with dense wool felt; some early pianos used leather). It is played using a musica ...
accordion Accordions (from 19th-century German language, German ''Akkordeon'', from ''Akkord''—"musical chord, concord of sounds") are a family of box-shaped musical instruments of the bellows-driven free reed aerophone, free-reed aerophone type (prod ...
concertina A concertina is a Free-reed instrument, free-reed musical instrument, like the various accordions and the harmonica. It consists of expanding and contracting bellows, with buttons (or keys) usually on both ends, unlike accordion buttons, which a ...
, and
hammered dulcimer The hammered dulcimer (also called the hammer dulcimer) is a percussion-string instrument, stringed instrument which consists of strings typically stretched over a trapezoidal resonant sound board (music), sound board. The hammered dulcimer is se ...
, are popular in specific regions. In some communities where square dancing has survived, the prevailing form of music has become popular songs from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, played on instruments such as
saxophone The saxophone (often referred to colloquially as the sax) is a type of Single-reed instrument, single-reed woodwind instrument with a conical body, usually made of brass. As with all single-reed instruments, sound is produced when a reed (mouthpi ...
drum The drum is a member of the percussion instrument, percussion group of musical instruments. In the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system, it is a membranophones, membranophone. Drums consist of at least one Acoustic membrane, membrane, cal ...
s, and
electric guitar An electric guitar is a guitar that requires external Guitar amplifier, amplification in order to be heard at typical performance volumes, unlike a standard acoustic guitar (however combinations of the two - a Semi-acoustic guitar, semi-acous ...
Tempo In musical terminology, tempo (Italian language, Italian, 'time'; plural ''tempos'', or ''tempi'' from the Italian plural) is the speed or pace of a given musical composition, piece. In classical music, tempo is typically indicated with an inst ...
s can vary from around 108 to more than 150 beats per minute, depending on the regional style. Modern western square dance is danced to a variety of music types, including pop, traditional and contemporary
country music Country (also called country and western) is a genre of popular music that originated in the Southern United States, Southern and Southwestern United States in the early 1920s. It primarily derives from blues, church music such as Southern gosp ...
, songs from Broadway musicals,
rock Rock most often refers to: * Rock (geology) In geology, rock (or stone) is any naturally occurring solid mass or aggregate of minerals or mineraloid matter. It is categorized by the minerals included, its Chemical compound, chemical compos ...
Motown Motown Records is an American record label A record label, or record company, is a brand or trademark of Sound recording and reproduction, music recordings and Music video, music videos, or the company that owns it. Sometimes, a record label ...
techno Techno is a Music genre, genre of electronic dance music (EDM) which is generally music production, produced for use in a continuous DJ set, with tempo often varying between 120 and 150 beats per minute (bpm). The central Drum beat, rhythm is typ ...
, and hip-hop. The music is usually played from recordings, and the tempo is more uniform than in traditional square dancing, ranging from 120-128 beats per minute. At this speed, dancers take one step per beat of the music. Irish and Scottish dances are normally done to traditional tunes. English dances may be done to traditional tunes, though there is experimentation with many different musical styles, especially at cèilidhs.

Clubs and attire

Square dance events can be run in different ways. In North America, traditional square dances are organized by bands, callers, or small groups of dancers. Modern western square dances are arranged by square dance clubs. The clubs offer classes, socials, and dance evenings and arrange larger dances that are usually open to non-club members. In Britain, square dance clubs are affiliated with the British Association of American Square Dance Clubs, which also organizes the teaching of modern western square dance to Callerlab definitions. Most square dance events in Britain are run according to the Callerlab syllabus by a caller who is either a member of Callerlab or of the Square Dance Callers Club of Great Britain, and the level of dancing is indicated on the publicity material, as in "Mainstream" or "Mainstream with Pre-Announced Plus". Céilidh and barn dance events are also often advertised as being square dance events. Square dance attire varies by the type of dance and by region. Traditional square dance groups often have no particular dress code. In the United States, larger modern western square dance events sometimes request a strict western-style dress code, which originated in the late 1950s and early 1960s and is known as ''traditional square dance attire'', although it was not traditional before that time. Some clubs require a less strict dress code, known as ''proper'', or no dress code, called ''casual''. Although many modern western square dancers in Britain wear traditional square dance attire, events often have a relaxed dress code. Where traditional square dancing exists as a community social dance, sometimes in the form of a barn dance or a cèilidh, people often dress up, though their clothing is not square-dance-specific. In the United States, lines between the forms of square dancing have become blurred. Traditional-revival groups typically adopt very casual dress, and traditional-revival choreographers have begun to use basic movements that were invented for modern western square dance forms. A few modern western callers incorporate older dances from various traditions, such as New England or Appalachian, into their programs.


While the standard formation for a square dance is four couples in a square, there are many variations on the theme. These include: * Ninepins: a square with one extra person in the middle. * Winter Solstice: a square with one extra couple in the middle. * Hexitation: a square with two couples in each of the head positions. * Twelve Reel: a square with three people on each side, normally a man with a woman on either side of him. * Hexagon dancing: six couples arranged in a hexagon. There are three head couples and three side couples. This variation is most commonly done by advanced and challenge-level dancers. * Bigon: a square with four people who each dances their own part and that of their opposite. This variation is almost exclusively done by challenge-level dancers due to its difficulty. Modern choreography also includes dances which morph from one form to another. There are contra dances and four-couple longways sets which turn into a square dance part of the way through the dance and then back to the original formation. Grid squares are dances where the squares are arranged in a grid, with sets carefully aligned across the room and up and down the room. The calls move dancers from one square to another in intricate patterns.

See also

* Youth square dance * Hoedown


Further reading


External links

Square Your Dance
multimedia collection of resources about square dancing
Square Dance History Project
a virtual museum with about 1,500 items, including video and audio clips, photographs, essays, and articles, documenting the origins and growth of traditional and modern square dancing

* ttp://www.heinerfischle.de/history/index-e.htm History of Square and Contra Dance
international database of Square Dance clubs and events
Square and Round Dancing Australia/NZ
- Square and Round Dancing & Clogging in Australia and New Zealand
Square Dance Resource Net
- Square dance information including links to detailed explanations of calls, database of callers, and more * US Associations *
Associated Square Dancers Association
(ASqD) of SoCal area square dance clubs, calendar of dances, clubs, classes, and events *
Washington Area Square Dancers Cooperative Association

Virginia Square Dancers Organization
Northern New Jersey Square Dancers Association
Western Star Dancers
a modern GLBT square dance and social club in San Francisco, California *
Square Dance Foundation of New England
has an extensive collection of books, records, photographs and other materials relating to the history of both traditional and modern square dancing. On the site are interviews with many callers and recordings of dances from the early 1960s. *
Square Dance Federation of Minnesota
serving Minnesota, Northern Iowa, Western Wisconsin, and the Eastern Dakotas {{Authority control Group dances American folk dances Symbols of Colorado Symbols of Connecticut Symbols of Georgia (U.S. state) Symbols of Oregon Social dance Symbols of New Jersey Symbols of Alabama Symbols of Illinois Symbols of California